As a celebrated pseudo-holiday of drinkers, lovers of the colour green, and all those with “a wee bit o’ Irish” in them, St Patrick’s Day – traditionally March 17th every year – has become a can’t-miss party for all those who wish to toast the Emerald Isle. But green beer and shamrock hats aside, how much do you really know about the origins of St Patrick’s Day and what it has meant for religion, culture, and the history of Ireland? We’re going to provide you with a short primer so you can showcase your “gift of gab” after a few pints of Guinness.
1. St Patrick: Not Even Irish
Here’s a big one to start: the real St Patrick was British, not Irish, and an aristocrat at that. Although he apparently had no interest in Christianity growing up, all that changed when he was 16 – Patrick was kidnapped and ended up a sheep-herding slave in the mountains of Ireland for seven years. It was through this awful experience that he found religion, and became a very devout Christian (as well as something of an adopted son of Ireland, albeit under less-than-ideal circumstances).
2. The Shamrock as The Holy Trinity
This is one of those facts that may or may not be fiction, but it makes for a neat story anyway: Apparently St Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity (one leaf each for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) to Ireland’s pagan Celts. However, since this is never mentioned in St Patrick’s writings, this claim will sadly have to go unconfirmed. Yet shamrocks remain, and you’re likely to see more than your fair share of (artificial) ones come March 17th.
The national symbol of Ireland – the Shamrock. Photo by U. Hermann.
3. St Patrick Is Feeling Blue
Everyone knows that the official colour of St Patrick’s Day is green – representative of the rolling hills of Ireland. But did you know that the colour originally associated with St Patrick was blue? There’s even a colour named “St Patrick’s Blue” in his honour. However, green came to be associated with St Patrick’s Day around the 17th century, when people began to celebrate the day with shamrocks and green ribbons.
Dancers wait for their turn in the St Patrick’s day parade in Dublin. Photo by Cailin O’Neil.
4. An Irishman in America?
St Patrick’s Day wasn’t actually a huge day in Ireland until the 1970s – instead, it was a minor holiday that was marked by a priest acknowledging the day and a celebratory meal. It became the party that it is today because of Irish-Americans looking for a way to honour their heritage in America. Irish organizations in the United States threw celebrations for St Patrick’s Day, inviting all the Ireland ex-pats to banquets – surrogate Irish families in a strange land, as it were. St Patrick’s Day parades became tradition once 18th-century Irish soldiers began to hold them while fighting alongside the British in the American Revolutionary War. Irish immigrant communities picked up the trend and began throwing parades for St Patrick as a way to affirm bonds of their heritage and to celebrate their identity. These days, just about anybody can join in the fun in a St Patrick’s Day parade, whether they’re Irish or not.
The famous St Patrick’s day parade in Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Cailin O’Neil.
5. The (un)luck of the Irish
Ever heard of “the luck of the Irish”? Turns out it might have just been sarcasm all along. Back in the day, when people referred to the Irish being lucky, it may have instead been a mean reference to how unlucky they actually were. Think about it: the potato famine, the plagues, colonization and more led to some pretty serious suffering of the Irish people. Conversely, talking about the luck of the Irish could have been a snide remark, given that a number of successful miners in the 19th century were Irish and Irish-American. Maybe this is also where the idea of leprechauns and pots o’ gold came from.
The luck of the Irish is everywhere. Photo by Bronzebrew.
Ready to get in touch with the Irish in you? Consider spending next St Patrick’s Day celebrating with the locals in Ireland with our St Patrick’s Day in Ireland trip – think pub crawls with a healthy dose of storytelling and culture. Want something a little more all encompassing? Try Highlights of Ireland – the Blarney Stone, Yeats’ Tomb, ancient castles, and cozy pubs are all waiting for you. Get your Irish on!